Sitting at your desk for hours on end can take a toll on a lot of things—your mental performance, your overall outlook on life and your general health and well-being. There’s a reason that researchers have concluded that sitting is the new smoking. Unfortunately, for many of us, the nature of work today leads to a lot of sitting and the subsequent declines in health.
And it’s not like sitting is a stress free endeavor. After all, you’re not just sitting to take a load off your feet. You’re sitting there trying to solve one or more problems and the constant stream of all of that can leave you in a low grade state of chronic fight or flight. When that happens there are systems in your body that either elevate or de-elevate and, over time, they compound the effect of all that sitting with high blood pressure, digestive problems, stress-hormone-induced insomnia, anxiety and weight gain, blood clots, decreased immune response and premature aging. Yikes! Not a pretty picture.
All of this is on my mind today after reading a New York Times article that reported that, for the first time in 16 years, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is going to start requiring its agents to pass a fitness test. The work of the FBI has changed a lot since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As the Times reports:
“After the attacks, many agents who were accustomed to working normal hours and had spent their entire careers investigating crimes like gang violence or drugs—work that took them into the field to make arrests—began working 20-hour days as the FBI changed its primary mission to fighting terrorism. Many agents were sent to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Around the same time, the bureau drastically expanded its efforts in two areas that emphasized long desk hours: cybersecurity and intelligence.
The increased demands manifested themselves in different ways. Some agents put on weight, while some suffered from anxiety and depression. “You could see that health and fitness was not the priority it used to be,” said Zachary Lowe Jr., the chief of instruction at the FBI’s academy in Quantico, Va., which created the (fitness) test.”
So, 13,500 FBI agents around the world are getting ready for the fitness test by running, sprinting and practicing their push-ups and sit-ups. That’s admirable but it may not be enough. Showing up at your best over the long run doesn’t come from prepping for a fitness test like you’re cramming for a test in college. It comes from adopting and building on routines that help you feel better and perform better on an overall, longer term basis. That means not just physical routines like working out, but routines in other domains like the mental, relational and spiritual. That integrated, holistic approach is what helps you show up at your best as a leader and a person. It’s the premise of the Life GPS® personal planning framework that I cover in my latest book, Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative.
Here are five simple ideas from the book that will help you feel better and perform better starting this week.
Sleep: Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found that 95 percent of people need at least seven hours of sleep a night to function at their best. If you think you can get by with less, then you’re in the 5 percent of the population that has a rare genetic mutation that enables you to do so. Odds are that you’re not in that group. If you want to feel better and perform better, get your sleep.
Move: Even if you work out every day, you’re probably not moving enough. The research shows that you need to move about every hour or so to feel and perform at your best mentally or physically. So, take that conference call standing up, take a five-minute break to walk around the building, take the stairs instead of the elevator, get up from your desk and stretch. Do one or more of those things every hour.
Snack: Your office can be one of the most dangerous places in the world to eat. Seriously, go take a look at the platters in your break room or outside the conference room right now. It’s highly unlikely that there’s much stuff on there that’s good for you. Prepare in advance for that by bringing your own snacks to work. This link has a lot of good ideas for what to bring.
Trigger: The challenging part of forming any good new habit is to remember to do it. Help yourself by establishing some triggers or reminders to get up and move, go to sleep on time, or eat something healthy instead of junky. Set the timer on your smartphone to remind you to get up and move every hour. Put your healthy snacks in a bowl on your desk where you can see them. Get a FitBit or some other wearable tracking device to remind you to move. (I got one last year and was shocked to see that most days I was only hitting about 50 percent of the goal of 10,000 steps a day. That’s changed.)
Talk: If you want to feel better and perform better, start talking (and listening.) A 2010 meta-analysis conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University examined the findings of 148 different studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people around the world. The BYU analysis found that people with strong relationships with family, friends or co-workers have a 50 percent better chance of being alive at the end of a 7.5 year period than people who don’t have strong relationships. The meta-analysis also showed that having weak relationships is more harmful than not exercising, twice as bad as being obese and about as bad as being an alcoholic or smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. If you want to live a longer, healthier life, you need to nurture strong relationships. In addition to making life sweet, strong relationships can help you feel less overworked and overwhelmed. Less stress means a longer, happier life.